Allison's Book Bag

Writing Across Racial/Cultural Barriers for Authentic Multicultural Storytelling by Lynn Joseph

Posted on: April 18, 2014

Today’s guest post is by Lynn Joseph, author of Flowers in the Sky, which I’ll review here tomorrow. Save the date: April 19!

LynnJoseph_GuestAlthough Joseph’s family moved from Trinidad to Maryland, when she was a young girl, Joseph returned to Trinidad every summer. Consequently, she grew up feeling as if she lived two separate lives. She explains in her About Me that her writing arose from homesickness for Trinidad. “I missed Trinidad so much; riding my bike everywhere, building forts in the hills, and just limin’ (hanging out) with friends. I also missed the steel pan music, and the joy I felt in Trinidad. The energy on my island is incredible.”

Trinidad culture influenced her writing in other ways too. “Trinidad is a mish-mash of cultures and traditions, including African, Indian, Chinese, Amerindian, Syrian, British and French. This lively, multi-cultural environment was invigorating for me as a budding writer.” As such, Joseph attended plays written by authors from diverse backgrounds. Her father took her to hear the steel bands practicing for Panorama competitions. And she attended a three-day Hindu wedding, to name a few influences. When about eight, Joseph began showing that impact by writing about pulling seine (fishing) and jumbies (ghosts) that lived in the cemetery next to her school.

Influences other than Trinidad also impacted her writing. During the summers, she and her siblings would walk twice a week to a drive-in to watch the double features. Her brother is now a filmmaker and actor. She also grew up with music playing in their house and hanging out with friends at a local record shop. Like most writers of young adult books, Joseph is stuck in a teenage time zone where she reads more young adult books, listens to more teen music, and sees more teen movies than adult ones.

At the end of the day, what she feels most inspires her books are her travels to different countries and cultures.

I realized that kids and teenagers are the same no matter where you go, they really are remarkably special in their curiosity and wonderment and once you can see that, it inspires characters and stories set in their world, but which embrace universal themes.

–Lynn Joseph, The Brown Bookshelf

          Writing Across Racial/Cultural Barriers for Authentic Multicultural Storytelling
by Lynn Joseph

On March 15, 2014, the N.Y. Times published an article entitled “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature.” It was written by African-American children’s and young adult author Christopher Meyers and it began:

“Of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people, according to The Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin.”

Myers ended his article by saying he was going to do his part to make a change: he would write books that give readers of color broader horizons, books to motivate their imaginations and to represent for these children, the ones marginalized and unrepresented, “an expansive landscape upon which to dream.”

At the Vermont College of Fine Arts, students in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults are asking the question, how can we help? Can we, mostly White students, create stories across cultures that would help, not hurt the multicultural representation in children’s literature? In other words, how can we write authentically about other races and cultures?

As a writer, a mother, and a person of color, I live with this question every day. How do I represent my own culture authentically to my children, to readers in my books, and to myself, when all I knew growing up was books about White children? When I was educated predominately in White institutions, and where the neighborhood I chose to raise my kids from high school years up is a predominately White one? To me, the issue is not one of race or color or even where I was born.

The real issue for writers is always how to find the heart and truth of the story you are writing. So when that story crosses racial, cultural and language barriers, then the issue becomes: How to find the heart and truth to cross those barriers in order to present authentic multicultural stories for children?

It took me two years of traveling back and forth between New York and the Dominican Republic, two years of learning about the Dominican culture, living with Dominicans, spending time in their homes, eating meals with them, dancing, laughing, crying and sharing holidays, elections, and stories with them before I was able to write The Color of My Words. The Dominican culture in that story is vastly different from my own middle class Trinidadian lifestyle. And in order to write it authentically, I had to live it first.

I’m not saying an author needs to do the same things I did. Each writer should find his or her own path to understanding a culture deeply and authentically enough to portray it in fiction. What I am saying, however, is that it is not as simple as tasting the food, or interviewing a few people from the country. Learning about a culture is not something that can be internalized on a two-week vacation.

Rudine Sims Bishop, an expert in diversity in children’s literature describes cultural authenticity as “the extent to which a book reflects the worldview of a specific cultural group and the authenticating details of language and everyday life for members of that cultural group.”

I’ve developed my list of eight ways in which a writer can create an authentic multicultural story.

  •  Read Books About and From That Culture
  •  Travel & Research
  •  Build Relationships & Participate in the Culture
  •  Co-Author the Story with Someone of that Race/Culture
  •  Establish an “Outsider Looking In” Narrative Stance
  •  Write an Author’s Note to Explain Your Connections
  •  Be Aware of Pervasive Stereotypes in Which a Culture is Portrayed
  •  Create Unique Sensory Descriptions To Transcend Those Stereotypes

Educators, psychologists, librarians and many others have long been aware of the damaging effects of the one-sided views in children’s literature. In her seminal 1965 essay, “The All-White World of Children’s Books” published in the Saturday Review, Nancy Larrick astutely observed:

“There seems little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation, instead of world conflict, as long as our children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books.”

The diversity in children’s literature dialogue is opening up for real changes to occur.  But increasing diverse literature means publishing stories that enlarge our children’s world view not perpetuate stereotypes and misrepresentations. Be careful. Be sensitive. Be aware. In the words of Rudine Sims Bishop, the good news is that  multicultural literature possesses the “potential to be transformative, it has the potential to change the world.”

6 Responses to "Writing Across Racial/Cultural Barriers for Authentic Multicultural Storytelling by Lynn Joseph"

[…] Writing for the blog Allison’s Book Bag, Joseph offered her thoughts about diversity in young adult literature in a post titled “Writing Across Racial/Cultural Barriers for Authentic Multicultural Storytelling.” […]

This is a pingback. I approved it because it links to a post about Lynn Joseph.

It is a sad reality that is finally getting some much needed attention. Hopefully, the people who can make a difference will.

Everyone can do their little part. For example, I might not be able to write the needed books, but I can help promote them. 🙂

What you are doing is a very great thing.

I belong to a wonderful organization at our local school district called MOSAIC. Several of my selections come from its library. The group has a great group of members who promote diversity at all levels.

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